Council Votes to Reconsider Controversial Housing Project It Failed to Approve Last Month

City Council approves a renewal motion so that a multi-family development project gets a second chance, but only if it changes its plans first

Published : Tuesday, August 27, 2019 | 4:53 AM

City Manager Steve Mermell, at left, confers with Pasadena City Attorney Michele Bagneris and Pasadena's Director of Planning and Community Development David Reyes during the Pasadena City Council's Monday, August 26, 2019 meeting.

The Pasadena City Council Monday voted to agendize another look at a large multi-family development planned for 235 South Los Robles Avenue which it had blocked in an hours-long hearing late last month.

The vote was 5 to 2, with Mayor Terry Tornek, Councilmembers John Kennedy, Steve Madison, Margaret McAustin, and Andy Wilson, voting in favor, and Councilmembers Victor Gordo and Gene Masuda voting against, bringing the project back for a new vote.

No date was set for the new project vote, which would require another public hearing.

The project would have to be considerably altered from its earlier version in order to be approved, said Planning Director David Reyes.

On July 22, a motion to reject a City staff recommendation in favor of the project failed on a 4-4 vote. A second motion to approve an amended version of the staff recommendation also failed on a 4-4 vote, effectively halting the project.

A project representative, Pasadena attorney Richard McDonald, told the Council at the time he would head to court to fight the denial because the project complied with state law, and “state law is a mandate.”

But according to McDonald in the days following the Council’s “unapproval” City Planning Department staff reached out to him to ask if the developer would consider changes to the project which might make it more likely to be approved by the Council.

“The developer is willing to try,” said McDonald. But McDonald added that “a project of this size is like a Rubik’s Cube. Every change will affect a lot of other project elements.”

Mayor Terry Tornek called the issue “a complicated piece of business,” and the vote “as odd a sequence as you could describe.”

Councilmember Victor Gordo, in arguing against the renewal motion, said it was unfair to give the developer “another bite of the apple” and that the City’s municipal code did not have a specific tool to allow the project to be considered again.

“It’s unfair to change the procedure midstream,” he said. “This sets a precedent of a developer who doesn’t get approved, just asking for a renewal motion.”

Gordo added that the City doesn’t have the “jurisdiction” to reconsider the project again.

City Attorney Michelle Bagneris responded that the renewal motion did not set a precedent and that the Council “could vote for it or not vote for it.”

Local activist Ed Washatka of POP! (Pasadenans Organizing for Progress) spoke out in favor of reconsidering the development, saying, “We encourage the City to explore this opportunity to request more affordable units from the developer in exchange for various concessions. Affordable housing advocates like POP! are very much in favor of such an accommodation.”

Councilember Kennedy told the Council, “If [the developers] are willing to modify the project, it would be hypocritical not to allow them to.”

But Gordo, unconvinced, called the renewal motion “a vote-gathering expedition.”

The vote occurs against the looming specter of State Bill SB 50, which was tabled by the State legislature in May. That bill could remove current size and density limits on developers building new housing in transit-oriented areas, including Pasadena, a situation which Mayor Tornek views with trepidation.

SB50, which won’t be heard again until 2020, would allow a developer to submit an application for a multi-family housing development with a streamlined approval process, and not be subject to a conditional use permit.

Tornek has said previously that the law could mean “the end of single-family neighborhoods.”

Eventually, Tornek feels, the state’s drive to develop more and more housing, could take the housing regulation completely out of the hands of local governments. Without local control, many fear the distinctive character of individual communities could be lost, awash in an ocean of big box, cookie-cutter apartment and condominium buildings.

Tornek also explained that he voted to reconsider the project because he didn’t want Pasadena to join the list of cities “like Huntington Beach,” who are throwing up roadblocks against building new affordable housing.